What Was the First Product of Robotic Manufacturing?

When we think about robotics in manufacturing, we tend to imagine futuristic machines with highly advanced instrument panels and software control interfaces. We talk about the future of robotics, and how it’s a technology that’s ever moving forward into uncharted realms of artificial intelligence and laser-driven mechanical vision and so on. 

While all of these things are accurate, and the advent of robotics in the manufacturing industry is a relatively recent thing that is only continuing to advance, robots have actually been a part of manufacturing processes for quite a while now. 

We thought it might be a good time to stop for a moment and look back at what was ultimately the first robot in a manufacturing setting. After all, it’s important to understand the past so you have something to build upon for the future. 

In this case, that past is in the form of a story about a man named George Devol, a robot called Unimate, and the first product created by a robot in manufacturing. 

The Invention of the First Industrial Robot

Back in 1954, a man named George Devol placed the first ever patent for an industrial robot. 

When George was 9, in 1921, the word “robot” made its first appearance in popular culture in the title of a play called R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The robots in the play were manufactured in large vats and had a human appearance. That play and its robots sparked within George an inescapable technological curiosity that would propel him through life at the forefront of advancement. 

That period was one where technology was beginning to fire off like a rocket ship. Electric motors and generators, control engineering, electrical transmission, and radio technology were all in an exciting state of rapid advancement, and the world was changing quickly along with them. 

In school, George gained some practical hands-on experience while he helped to run the school’s electric light plant, and upon graduation (he skipped engineering college entirely), he started his own company. 

You see, it was right around this time where the first movies were emerging that featured sound to go along with the visuals. They were called “talking pictures,” or “talkies.” George saw an opportunity here and used his experience with vacuum tubes, photocells, and circuitry to form a company that sought to better integrate the sound into film. 

When the business opportunities dried up in that field, he went on to explore other areas on the cutting edge of electronics and technology. In fact, it was George Devol who created the first automatic door, licensing the technology to a firm who went on to commercialize it as the “Phantom Doorman.”

It was in 1939, at the World’s Fair, where George saw his first actual robot. It was a humanoid machine called Electro the robot, created and displayed by Westinghouse. It was a clumsy and schlocky caricature of the likes from the science fiction films at the time, but nonetheless George was smitten. 

From there, the inventor went on to develop a slew of amazing things, like radar systems and microwave test equipment, but it was in 1957 when he applied for a patent on his robotics breakthrough – the Programmed Article Transfer. 

You see, George had created a machine that could transfer materials from one location to another of its own accord, a truly marvelous thing at the time. Eventually this programmed article transfer became the “manipulator,” and finally was simply called a robot. This rebranding paid off and George was able to manufacture the invention, which came to be known as the Unimate. 

The first customer of the Unimate, and a foreshadowing into what the first robot was used to make, was none other than GM, or General Motors. 

The First Robotically Manufactured Product

The first Unimate, the first known industrial robot in existence, was placed on an assembly line at the Inland Fisher Guide Plant in Ewing Township, New Jersey. 

The robotic arm, which looked much like the robotic arms still in use today, weighed a hefty 4,000 pounds and was controlled by vacuum tubes that were used as digital switches. 

Its task was to transport die castings from an assembly line and then weld them onto the bodies of automobiles. This was a big deal, because the welding and transportation of die castings was a particularly dangerous job for workers, exposing them to poisonous exhaust gas and potential for serious bodily harm should an accident occur. 

With Unimate on the job, there’s no telling just how many workers were spared injury over the years of its operation. 

After that first Unimate was sold, George Devol’s company began producing the robots as fast as they could. The demand was massive, and only continued to grow. Now, there’s hardly a large manufacturing operation in the country that isn’t using robots in some form or another, and it’s all thanks to that initial vision of George’s, reading science fiction books as a small child and dreaming about the future. 

Into Tomorrow

The field of robotics has come a long way in the 6 decades since that first Unimate went into operation. Now there are robots of all shapes and sizes, industrial and collaborative, working alongside people right on the manufacturing floor. 

Of course, as robots have advanced and filled out their roles in the industry, so too have the job requirements for the people needed to operate, program, maintain, and design them. Today, the need for workers in robotics is greater than ever, and that need will only continue to grow. 

If you’ve ever considered a career in robotics, now is the perfect time to get started. The RoboticsCareer.org search tool is the perfect way to find training and educational programs near you that will get you on your way to a lifetime on the cutting edge of technological advancement. 

Whether you’re looking to become a robotics technician, a specialist, or an integrator, the field is wide open and limited only by your imagination. 

Who knows? Maybe you could even be the next George Devol. 

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